Monday, December 6, 2010

Europe in Unlikely Places: Localization for Lesser-Spoken Dialects

“Unique dialect, Texas German, taking last gasp.”  The headline for a May 13, 2007 article in the Louisville (Kentucky) Courier-Journal, it certainly grabbed my attention.  As a scholar of all things Southern and of most things linguistic, I wondered why I’d never heard of Texas German before.  In reading, I went on to find that Texas German is “a unique dialect that developed as German settlers came to central Texas in the 1840s.”  Further study lead to the discovery of the Texas German Dialect Project (, “an umbrella organization for carrying out research in representative Texas German speech communities in central Texas.”

Most of us have heard of Louisiana (or Cajun) French, the Acadian dialect that slowly developed as people were pushed from France to Canada then down the Mississippi.  Many are also familiar with Pennsylvania Dutch, the German dialect I was taught belonged to the Amish growing up, but which is in reality also spoken by Mennonites, Lutherans, German Reformed, and loads of other people who use electricity.  And then there’s Nebraska with all its Scandinavian language dialects providing splendid dialogue for anything written by Willa Cather.

But Texas German?  I mean, really. 

No offense to Texas, but if I were going to localize a non-English language for the folks who live there, it’d be Spanish these days.

And Spanish does seem to get all the attention.  A quick glance through back issues of Multilingual will uncover at least four articles in the last year which all address the need to make sure we localize for the “right” Spanish for our target market.  These articles are warranted, as the variants are indisputable and specifically requested by many clients in the know.  But how many clients have you had request Texas German?

Granted, Texas German is most likely not spoken in most LSP clients’ target markets.  According to Warren Hahn with that Texas German Dialect Project I brought up earlier, 100,000 people spoke the dialect in its heyday -- right before World War II.  To put that in perspective, according to the last US Census -- conducted in 2000 -- 5,195,182 Texans spoke Spanish as their primary language.  There’s no question where the bigger market is here, people.

But still, it begs the question: exactly how precise does localization need to be?

We’re all aware of the acute need for accuracy in our profession.  It doesn’t matter if Ohioans sit on a couch and Californians sit on a davenport.  If I live in Kentucky, when I go in the furniture store, I want the sign to direct me to sofas.  We all want to see, hear, and read the language we speak the way that we speak it.  Yes, we may all understand that a couch, a davenport, and a sofa are really the same thing, but if you’re wanting to sell me one, I’m going to buy it from the man who calls it what I do.  That’s the one rule of localization even the most difficult client can get: people don’t buy what they don’t understand.  But precisely how much understanding do we need?

In the case of Texas German, the Courier reports the language “is a hybrid, mostly German but altered by English…Spoken, Texas German sounds a lot like modern German…A German speaker could understand 95 percent of what’s said by a person speaking Texas German, and vice versa.”  Maybe it’s just me, but I certainly think that’s enough of an overlap that a separate ISO code really isn’t needed here.

With Louisiana French, the differences between the American dialect and its European, mother language are more evident, or at least get more PR as such.  Francophone culture and language scholars Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow write in their book The Story of French, “[t]he Cajun French dialect is very distinct from Parisian French or even Quebec French.  The influence of English is strong, not only in vocabulary, but in calques such as laisser les bons temps rouler (let the good times roll)…Cajuns preserved different archaisms than those found in Canadian French…They also developed lively expressions of their own, including lache pas la patate (literally don’t drop the potato, meaning don’t give up).”

The United States is full of local linguistic pockets, with 26 different dialects of English alone as defined by linguist Robert Delaney (not to be confused with the former relief pitcher for the Minnesota Twins).  According to his map, I grew up in the middle of dialect number 17 -- nowhere near the border of any other US English dialects.  But my grandfather would have said Mr Delaney was wrong.  We lived in the county and Grandpa always swore that people in town  didn‘t talk like us.  When I started being bused into the county seat for the 6th grade, I agreed with him.  Their accents and word choices were not the same.  At home, we still used linguistic patterns straight out of Chaucer (ex, I’m a-goin’ for I‘m going) and no one in town used the word polecat for skunk.  (Skunk in Texas German, in case you’re curious, is die Stinkkatze.  The word is part of the 5% distinguishing it from German as spoken in Germany, where they say das Stinktier.)  

Of course, it would be ludicrous for a client to request localization into Christian County, Kentucky English.  It would simply never happen.  But my grandfather’s observation does a-bring us back to precision.  It speaks to that question I raised earlier, the one that comes to light when you realize European languages are long past being just for Europe--that here in the States, all joking aside, hundreds of languages are spoken and many of them used to belong to Europe.

None of this is new information.  You can’t get past kindergarten without learning about immigration and/or colonialism in some small way-- even if it is only making Pilgrim hats and hearing Miles Standish’s name for the first time.  As many a wise man has said, the difference between a language and a dialect is an army.  We all know whose armies came to the Americas and we all know whose armies won: the ones whose languages we speak today.

But when it comes to localization, the lesson our industry is still yet to learn is that when we say US English or US insert-other-European-language-here, maybe we can be a bit more precise -- not to the point of ludicrousy, but rather to the point of -- well -- precision.  Localizing for Texas German or Kentucky English might not be necessary or even possible, but what about localizing for Southern US English or, as the need grows, Southern US Spanish?  Whenever we have a client call in requesting Spanish for the US market, where I work, the first question is where.  As it’s been better said before, US Spanish is a misnomer, often doubling as Cuban Spanish or Mexican Spanish or the ambiguous Latin American Spanish, which is, in of itself, riddled with difficulty.  In our office, when a client requests US Spanish, we ask specifically which state, then look at Census data to see which countries the speakers there are truly more likely to be from, hoping to derive dialect from there.

But just as each European language has its respective American dialects, each language service provider has its capabilities and limitations.  You know your clients’ needs best and if you don’t, I can guarantee they won’t stay your clients for long.  Clients and LSPs must work together to decide how much precision is in fact needed for the sake of the document and for the business relationship we share.  Some clients very much want to watch every word -- others couldn’t give a rip.

In the end, no matter what your policies are on the obscurest of the obscure, there’s only so much any of us can do--no matter which dialect we do it in.  We all must determine for ourselves, on a case by case basis, exactly how precise is precise enough.  And whatever we decide, well, all those Texas German speakers will just have to live with it.

(Please note this blog was originally published in Multilingual.)


telephone interpreting said...

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Anonymous said...

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- Daniel